Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Finally back!

I went to visit my parents for a week to attend my nephew's high school graduation and to be exploited for free child care. For some reason, the entire week I could not access Blogger. I could access blogspot blogs, but not the "create a new post" homepage. Weird. And frustrating. I did watch a lot of movies though, and I read a few books. It is really disturbing how I cannot remember anything I've read of a book I've read more than five years ago.

Visiting your dysfunctional family, no matter how cute the kids nor how favorite the nephew (people who say they don't have favorite kids lie), is always fraught with tension. I am glad to be back, although I always twinges with filial impiety guilt at the "when are you going to come home again" (not till the winter holidays if I can help it) and "why are you only visiting for so short a time" (to keep my sanity) and the "we miss you" (I miss you too, but not as much as I miss the freedom to come and go as I please and the other life I've built for myself). Maybe because all of these carry the attendant "when are you going to finally be done with school" and "why did you pick a career with such a limited job market that is geographically capricious" (because I never want to live in Orange County, within daily driving distance of my family again) and "why didn't you become a dentist or pharmacist, you could have been working for the past four years." AUGH. All of these are valid questions from your supportive (if dysfunctional) family, but I suspect that no one wants to hear them.

The whole village/enclave model of family that's omnipresent in Vietnam has been somehow replicated in America. There are family businesses, and most of the members of my family work for each other and with each other. My mother, even as she's mildly crippled by arthritis and a bad fall several months back, still cooks food for 2-3 households and she and my father deliver them in tupperwares. It's nice, especially if you're both working parents as my siblings are, but then again you've just given your nosy and judgmental father a key to your house and he, even as he comes bearing food, enters your house willy nilly. There's no such thing as privacy in my family, which is why I so jealously guard my physical privacy (even as I share stuff with you all). Aside from TD, I guard my time and space and make appointments. Even with each other and our standing every night dates, we coordinate schedules and respect each other's space and the professional and personal lives we lead independently of one another. While I sort of miss the informality of the comings and goings of my siblings and how they all see each other and each other's kids without much notice or formality, I'm glad that no one just drops by unnanounced (yes, TD announces himself usually). You know that show "Friends"? In which Joey and Chandler and Phoebe and Ross seem to camp out at Monica and Rachel's apartment and drop by unannounced all the time and eat food? That seems nice to have such a tight circle of friends. It also seems really annoying. But perhaps this is why I appear to have so few local friends and hangout buddies around here such that I can't even tell if I'm going deaf if TD is out of town. Absent my one "anytime" friend (TD), I'm pretty socially isolated. I am improving, however: my sociability watch/index is improving, and I have more regular hangout dates with friends in the area (while they're in the area) than I did before. I have a TV watching buddy, and a flaneur buddy.

Which reminds me, now that I'm back and free to come and go as I please (even if it's not in and out of a friend's apartment, unannounced), I should set up some city walk dates with my architect friend (always fun to be able to ask "what's that?!" to someone who can say "Art Deco details/coffered ceilings") and a Battlestar Galactica date with my TV friend and a power walk date with my other friend (power walk after I drop her off some soup, of course).

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Things that make you feel old.

My nephew is graduating from high school on Wednesday.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

My relationship with illicit substances.

I don't drink coffee every day. One cup can work if I'm not too exhausted (I have been known to drink it like warm milk and feel like a nap), two cups make me jittery but awake for a few hours, three cups give me arrhythmia and clammy hands and I can't sleep later that night. I can't drink caffeine after 3 pm. I also don't drink it every day so that when I do need it and do drink it, it works. But I so rarely drink it, and the sweet spot amount I need is so variable that I don't know what's working: the caffeine or the adrenaline of approaching a deadline. I usually drink 1-2 cups of tea per day, and occasionally have headaches that I've learned are not caffeine withdrawal headaches but are merely headaches, and so I actually take Tylenol now, rather than drink the coffee I thought I needed but didn't.

I also don't drink very often, so one drink will hit me hard, and possibly give me a hangover the next day, such that I will rue that one daquiri and curse my penchant for umbrella drinks. Certain red wines give me such a bad headache and hangover the next day, even for a one quarter or half glass, that I am thinking of avoiding untried varietals entirely and being one of those pfoufy women who only drinks white wine. Not white zinfadel, though. Nope, never.

I eat a lot of sugar though. Like a cookie a day. Because I'm no longer 18 years old, I don't eat a ton of candy like I used to, and I definitely feel sugar overload much easier. I used to be able to eat a large chunk of fudge in 15 minutes. Now I eat that more slowly, like over 2-3 days.

I also eat bacon every couple of weeks. Any more often and I'd feel like getting an angioplasty.

What are your vices, and how do you use them? How do you control your use? How often do you indulge? What do you avoid, and what do you crave? One of my old roommates used to speak of "craving" alcohol, and needing a drink every night. It was better for her to drink a little every day rather than try to sublimate the craving and binge drink later. I never really understood that, but I as an American woman do understand the perils of dieting, binge eating, and the illicit allure of cookies and snack foods. I don't have much moral compunction over caffeine, fat, sugar, or alcohol, but I have a physical awareness of my body's responses to these substances and really limit my use, but I know that control is as much psychological as it is physical. And the physical only gets you so far, and it's taken me years to figure out my limits and how little I want to exceed them, such that I give myself psychological license to step back rather than give in. Because it wouldn't be (except with the sugar and fat) giving in per se, since I don't crave the other substances, so I gain less pleasure from a drink. The closest I can come to feeling like a "need" is the caffeine, which is strange to think about, considering how little coffee I drink.

Note, none of this is code for drugs. I watched The Wire and marveled at all the drugs, since I have never really seen them. I actually am curious how most people consume the little vices and tasty/stimulating/tipsy-making vices.

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Culture Clash

One giant organization (The United States) attempts to reform the insular organizational culture of another (GM).:

But it will be up to the federal government, which will own a majority of General Motors when it emerges from bankruptcy, to tackle what is perhaps the most difficult challenge in Detroit: transforming G.M.’s insular culture — at times as bureaucratic as the government’s — to make the company more competitive.

If the effort fails, the Treasury may never recoup the $50 billion it has provided G.M.

“Addressing cultural issues is just as fundamental to our assignment as addressing the balance sheet or financing,” said Steven Rattner, the lead adviser to the White House on the automobile industry.

In just one example, whenever a top G.M. executive was called to appear before lawmakers in Washington, staff members would prepare a briefing binder as thick as a Manhattan phonebook and hold multiple meetings to strategize over five minutes of testimony (Fritz Henderson, the new chief executive, has told employees to stop doing that).

In a Senate hearing Wednesday, Ron Bloom, another adviser on the auto task force, also talked about the need for G.M. to break longstanding habits that have made the company, with its bloated structure, lose a step to more nimble competitors.

“General Motors has been kicking problems down the road for a long time,” Mr. Bloom said.

Mr. Rattner and other government officials have repeatedly said they have no interest in running the company day-to-day. But they are taking a keen interest in shaping the new leadership team.

Measuring any progress in changing the culture will take time. The results, after all, will be seen in the new vehicles that the company develops and produces — and whether they reflect world-class business practices that are required to win against the best of its global competitors.


Yet another addition to the strucure/agency/culture debates! And one that suggests organizational culture flows from the top down, as evidenced by attempts to shape the new leadership:

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Stay away, Belle

This is exactly like the type of movie that would have appealed to my 20 year old self, yet I have the vague feeling that I should stay away from its twee sense of superiority:

Verona’s question may or may not be disingenuous, but the answer provided by “Away We Go,” the slack little road comedy in which it arises, is unambiguous. Far from being screw-ups, Verona and Burt, played with passive-aggressive winsomeness by Maya Rudolph and Jon Krasinski, are manifestly superior to everyone else in the movie and, by implication, the world.

And even though they express themselves with a measure of diffidence, it’s clear that they are acutely, at times painfully, aware of their special status as uniquely sensitive, caring, smart and cool beings on a planet full of cretins and failures.

To observe that they inhabit no recognizable American social reality is only to say that this is a film by Sam Mendes, a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean. The vague, secondhand ideas about the blight of the suburbs that sloshed around “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road” are now complemented by an equally incoherent set of notions about the open road, the pioneer spirit, the idealism of youth.

Or something. Really, “Away We Go” is about the flight from adulthood, from engagement, from responsibility, even as it cleverly disguises itself as a search for all those things. But the dream of being left alone in a world of your own making, far from anything sad or icky or difficult, is a child’s fantasy. Not an unattractive or uncommon one, it must be said, and for that reason it is tempting to follow Burt and Verona into the precious, hermetic paradise that awaits them at the end of the road. You know they will be happy there. But you should also understand that you are not welcome. Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don’t be silly. But don’t be fooled. This movie does not like you.


Hmmm. I'm also staying away from the new two-steps-away-from-snuff-porn Lars von Trier movie, because the older I get, the less I want to be viscerally disturbed and emotionally decimated from watching a movie, which in theory should be my leisure time. There's something to be said for art that is challenging and difficult, but something in me broke a few years ago. Whereas previously I sought these extreme emotions, because their source was more foreign than the tumult of family life, now I can't bear to be so affected, for hours or days on end, by a visual and emotional depiction of pain and suffering, when my life is generally less dramatic now. I sort of get the American complacency that lacks a critical, self-directed eye and avoids difficult art, except that I am perfectly willing to read sad, difficult and emotionally disturbing literature, and allow myself to be so moved through words and imagination. That kind of emotional artistic experience I still seek. It's the visual depiction I can't bear, that so emotionally drains me. I've noticed too, that I shy away from violence much more easily now than I did when younger. In theory, I should be more desensitized, by now. But it just gives me nightmares. No, not even in the name of art. No.

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Joyce Carol Oates on Salinger's Love Letters

And on intimacy in the public sphere, in general:

The Hawthornes' devotion to each other, and to the idealized image of each other they presented to the world, would seem to be a powerful rebuke of the debased and exploitative nature of intimacy in our time, in which lovers routinely betray each other in salacious ''memoirs'' (the most despicable of which must be James Hewitt's memoir of his love affair with Princess Diana, at a time when she was distraught over her failing marriage with Prince Charles) and by the peddling of intimate love letters (the most recent, 14 letters by J. D. Salinger, written in the 1970's to his much-younger lover Joyce Maynard, scheduled to be auctioned off by Sotheby's in June). No doubt, through the millennia lovers have betrayed one another, but the mass-marketing of such betrayals, at high prices, is a relatively new development in what we call civilization.

Romance is a turbulent surf that, withdrawing, leaves a tangle of debris in its wake. Without the shimmering aura of love, mere words can be . . . mere words, and embarrassing. Without the stratagems of art, which are rarely spontaneous and unmediated, even the most heartfelt utterances not only sound banal, but are banal.

It may have been that Nathaniel Hawthorne, the consummate artist, rereading his wife's ''maiden'' letters, decided to burn them as much for aesthetic as for personal reasons; for nothing leaves us more exposed and vulnerable, like a mollusk pried out of its shell, than heartfelt declarations, especially when examined by a neutral eye.

It's a rare love letter that transcends the ephemeral occasion of its composition and endures as art, like those brilliant letters dashed off by Virginia Woolf to her flamboyant lover Vita Sackville-West or those teasingly enigmatic little notes composed by Emily Dickinson for her more intimate friends, both female and male.

Usually, love letters are painful to read, especially after love has died; should we succumb to the temptation to read them, we are made guilty voyeurs. The collector who buys Salinger's letters will require, like all voyeurs, a convincing rationalization for his or her behavior. (Scholarly zeal, of course?)

Anyone who confides in any writer risks being transmogrified into art if he or she is sufficiently interesting; the best protection is to be dull, bland and predictable.

Conversely, anyone with a modicum of a public identity must know that he or she is continually at risk in behaving impulsively in this rapacious era of memoirs, taped conversations and wiretaps. To commit one's most intimate feelings to paper, in letters, is the height of naivete, or hope. Immanuel Kant's great moral imperative -- that we should behave at all times in such a way that our actions might constitute an imperative for all human beings -- might be modified as a warning: we should assume that any confidence made to anyone, verbally or in writing, no matter in what private, precious circumstances, will possibly be betrayed, if only inadvertently.

When personal letters of mine written to a former friend were first offered for sale, some years ago, I reacted with shock, hurt and disappointment. I was embarrassed that I seemed to have made a fool of myself, in writing openly and impulsively (and without revising!) to one who thought so little of me, and may have intended exploitation from the first. (These were not love letters.)

In time, however, I came to view such ''betrayals'' in a philosophical light. The act of sending a letter is an act of generosity, even if, in retrospect, it might seem reckless. Why regret one's generosity? Why regret one's impulsiveness, one's misjudgment of others? The inevitable discovery that someone is selling letters you'd written in trust is simply to discover an obvious human truth: there are those who don't cherish us as we'd cherished them, and had wished to be cherished by them.


I share plenty of personal stories on this blog, but I rarely regret this. I do, however, regret the many, many words I've written to former friends and lovers. I highly doubt that such letters will ever be "sold," though certainly I expect that intimacies have been betrayed. I also regret, more abstractly, wasting so many words on such people. So many feelings contained in those words. So much honesty, hopefulness, love and trust, that such words were not going to be thrown away to people who did not deserve them. Perhaps, in time, I will attain the philosophical perspective of Oates, and learn not to regret my "generosity, impulsiveness, misjudgment of others." It's hard to get there, though.

As I've gotten older, less naive, and less romantic in nature, I've learned to devalue the written word. But in a good way! I trust more in action, unspoken gesture, and subtle intimacy, over effulgent prose with so many failed promises. I trust more in the idea of things "feeling right" than in "saying the right things." Though I confess that occasionally, I do want to hear the right thing. There are a million idiosyncratic ways to express affection and reinforce intimacy. Declarative statements are but one vehicle, and I've learned to highly mistrust purple prose. I've also learned to be more restrained with my own words. While I will still verbally express affection and will go so far as to write such sentiments down, I've become less extravagant and more economical in how I express such sentiments. Less "I'd climb the highest mountain," and more "I'd hang out with you." It does feel more authentic and honest. I also share less

Somewhere, the 18 year old lit major inside me is dying. When I was 19, I complained about my too naive, too-romantic nature to a friend, who said that was what he liked best about me. At the time, it was the best compliment I'd ever received. Nowadays, I'm not so sure.

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Sunday, June 07, 2009

the ups and downs of married life

If you didn't cry (or sob uncontrollably, in my case) at the wordless montage of a happy marriage punctuated by sadness and unfulfilled promises set to Michael Giacchino's song "Married Life" in Up, you sir/madam, have no heart.



I loved the movie and alternately laughed and cried and felt grateful for every day adventures.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

sociability index

Progress: last night I went to a dinner party hosted by a friend in which I made more friends. And it'll be a semi-regular thing, because she wants to start up a semi-weekly support group for her friends taking the bar. What a lovely idea. Since I'm not doing anything super stressful this summer (well, other than ongoing dissertation work, which is its own nightmare), I was glad to be invited. And on Sunday I'm going over to a friend's house to watch TV. That's right, watch TV. I no longer will attempt any moral righteousness over not connecting my physical TV, since I watch a lot of TV through Hulu and DVDs, and have now made a TV-date. Not brunch, not hiking, not farmer's market shopping, as is the typical Sunday activity among my kind in these parts, but TV watching. We're also ordering pizza.

Also, tips on how to be a good guest to a stressed-out hostess who's trying to do a nice thing for all of her other stressed-out friends: call in advance and ask if there's any help needed. Come over 40 minutes early and make empanadas and chop vegetables. Stay late and do the dishes. This way your hostess, who's also your very good friend, can fall asleep right away and wake up and study, rather than clean. I wanted to bring something, but I had a lemon bar FAIL. So I brought myself, and a bit of elbow grease. Next week I'm bringing chocolate chip cookies, which would be hard for me to mess up. Not impossible, but hard.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Cheapness Studies, the blog

A new interdisciplinary blog by me, Miss Self-Important, and Phoebe Maltz! We all have introductory posts up. Because nothing conquers blog exhaustion like starting another blog.

Check it out!

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I don't want to die watching baseball like that guy's mom did in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Why can't I ever remember that character's name, when this was my favorite book my sophomore year in high school (shut up)? Anyway, update on the muffled hearing/ringing tone/ear ache situation: I just have to wait it out, and this fluid in my ears should go away after a few...weeks. Until then, I will be saying "what?" a lot, and there will be plenty of private in-jokes about how we're just like one of those odd couple sitcoms/mixed race buddy movies in which every line is a funny misunderstanding that generates a laugh track. And TD comes back tonight (before I go away again on the 16th to visit my parents, so we at least have some together time between our many trips), so maybe I'll stop being emo.

On Friday we're going to a baseball game, and the forecast is for thunderstorms. I am planning on packing soup and tea, and hoping that it won't be completely rained out. I will also hope to not die in the pursuit of America's favorite past time:

It's weirdly moving, if not exactly consoling, to learn just how many of baseball's casualties made the play before expiring. There's the amateur shortstop who, in 1902, caught a bad hop in the throat and used his last moments to throw out the runner at first. The third baseman in an Indiana league who, in 1909, tagged out the runner plowing headfirst into his gut, then succumbed to the resulting internal injuries three days later. There's just something about baseball that inspires a kind of heroic resolve. John McSherry, the major league umpire who collapsed at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium in 1996, had actually postponed treatment for the heart condition that felled him so he could call the game.* It was Opening Day.

All the old romantic baseball tropes turn up again and again in Death at the Ballpark. But the effect is haunting, since here each is mercilessly punctuated with a death. There's the aging minor leaguer, battling his way back to the majors after a couple of stints in the show—except that Millard Fillmore "Dixie" Howell, who played in the White Sox farm system in the '50s, never gets called up again and dies of a heart attack instead. A few incidents are such ruthless perversions of our shared baseball idylls that it's as if Roman Polanski had recut Field of Dreams. One July night in a backyard in Houston in 1950, a 7-year-old boy asks if he can throw his dad one more pitch before heading inside. The father says OK. The son pitches. Then the father swings and connects, inadvertently "striking his son over the heart." The son dies before they can make it to the hospital.

There's no underestimating baseball's versatile capacity for killing us. Late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti famously wrote that baseball "is designed to break your heart," and the statement takes on new meaning reading Death at the Ballpark, particularly Gorman and Weeks' section on commotio cordis, or concussions of the heart. A commotio cordis can be brought about only by getting struck at a particular place in the chest at the exact moment between heartbeats. And yet it manages to dispatch several pages' worth of victims.


Then there's a story Gorman and Weeks had both heard versions of but always assumed was apocryphal until they ran down a local newspaper account confirming it: In Morristown, Ohio, in 1902, one man asks another if he can borrow his penknife so he can sharpen the pencil he's using to keep score. The second man hands his penknife to the guy seated between them, named Stanton Walker, and asks Walker to pass it on. At that exact moment, a foul ball whaps Walker on the wrist, and he stabs himself.

Still, in the end, you could choose to see something slightly uplifting about the sheer volume of these freak and incomprehensible accidents. Take it as an indicator of just how much time Americans have spent on and around baseball fields over the last century and a half—of what baseball means to us. We've managed to die on the diamond in so many crazy ways only because it's one of the places we've done the most living. We've all been shagging flies in that minefield together.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

California's Crisis

At the LSA, I attended the "Many Faces of Constitutionalism" panel, for which Sandy Levinson was the chair/discussant. Among his remarks about the short life of most constitutions (the average is 18 years, I believe, correct me in the comments) is that some constitutions render states ungovernable, and thus should be rebooted. He used California as such an example, as my home state requires 2/3 majority to pass a budget, and has (what I think, you may disagree) ridiculous recall/referendum provisions that make it insanely easy to pass stupid laws and amend the state constitition by popular vote. He said that not a single federal dollar should go to California until it holds a constitutional convention. In light of our budget crisis and the emergency election we just had, I'm inclined to agree.

So why is California so messed up? How did we get this way?

Louis Warren, a history professor at UC Davis and guest blogger at Edge of the American West, tells the story of my baffling, beleaguered state in two posts:

1. How we got here.

2. California's crisis and the collapse of the Republican party.

These are definitely worth reading.

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I need more people to talk to so that I can tell whether I'm going deaf.

I called the Advice Nurse about my left ear, which is the first step to obtaining health care at my school. She suggested taking decongestants, and if my hearing/feeling of stuffed-upness doesn't improve, to call for a same day appointment to see if it's not something more serious.

I've taken about three doses now, and for a while I couldn't tell if things were improving, mainly because without TD (who is currently out of town), I have no one to talk to, since I work from home at my sweet ergonomic set up, or very rarely, at one of the libraries (only if I'm reading). I tried listening to podcasts, but the sound is too "surround" coming from my cheap computer speakers, and so I can't really tell if my hearing is the same or improved. It works better when someone is trying to directly address me, since I can tell if the voice sounds muffled to one ear or the other, such that when they stand to my left I can't hear them as well. Headphones...you would think, but for some reason the companies, they do stereoscopic sound so that I am supposed to hear more poorly from just one earbud.

So since I have not many friends in town who are free to just meet up to test my hearing (the few friends I have are studying for the bar or are probably busy with work, their own lives, etc.), I tried to sing out loud to Lizzie West's "Chariot's Rise" and Sheryl Crow's "I Shall Believe" (I am teh emo when TD is gone) which makes me notice a sort of echo in my head, in which my own voice feeds back slightly muffled to my left ear. Sigh. I guess I should call for an appointment tomorrow.

So, I'm slightly perplexed by my stuffed up ear, slightly concerned that I am way too self-isolating working from home and not social enough, and even more concerned that should I move away for a short-term fellowship or clerkship, I would lose my main source of company and will probably feel devastatingly lonely. I mean, I would still apply and go if accepted, of course. But I am filled with premature ambivalence and emo-ness. For a permanent move, we plan to move together (operative word being plan, which as Robert Burns will tell you...), but for a short separation, we would go separate ways and "make it work." Of course, I guess I would just have to reach out more and make new friends, but the very idea fills me with anxiety and preemptive sadness (I am Super Emo Girl, indeed). It's a scary thing, putting all your eggs into one basket, even if you love the basket so much you would hug it to you until the wicker cracked (bad metaphor! can you imagine that visual!). Without TD around, I've just been eating cereal, toast, graham crackers, fruit, and I did make myself some bean soup just to actually eat protein. I can easily imagine how I'd devolve back to my lonely, don't talk to anyone all day and eat cereal by yourself as you read the NYT and then stay up all night insomniac self that I was for most of my young adult life. I can't recall what it was like when I last had a boyfriend, since I was young and stupid and it was mostly long distance.

But I do remember what it was like during law school and the year I lived at my parents' house, in which I was whether by intent or accident mostly keeping to my own company, and would go for a whole day without talking to someone. Well, when living with my parents, I did talk, but in Vietnamese, so I got disused to talking in English about things that interested me, and I would go to the store just to see if I could do small talk. Actually, that was when and why I started this blog, so that I could have people to at least write to and form a community of author to reader. And it worked! I broke through my intellectual isolation with this blog, and I even made blog friends. I became so very insecure about my social skills during this time, though, such that when I finally met my first blog friend in person, SEK, I prepped him with this fear, in case I talked way too fast and too spastically and gesticulated nervously, which I sometimes think, can scare people. Seriously, I might hit you in the eye if we meet and I'm nervous.

Ironically, it was because of this blog that I'm now much more confident in my social skills. I kept on meeting strangers because I would start epistolary friendships via the greater popularity of the Belle Lettre alter ego, and I even got used to meeting such blog friends in person if I happened to be traveling in their area. I got used to meeting so many professors and readers that I started getting confident enough in my social skills to start dating again. Yes, I actually did not really date between college and now. Maybe I had two isolated dates in the intervening period, and you can imagine how those went. I can count on less than two hands the number of real, not ambiguous dates I've been on in my life. Like, it would actually amost fit on one hand. So when I did start dating again, just two years ago, I was a nervous wreck, but at least confident that I could talk about anything with anyone, and I learned to control my hand gestures so that I would not sock my date in the eye. One of the great virtues of being an academic is that I've learned to control the pace of my speech (at least when I'm presenting), so that if I try to pretend that I'm giving a talk or lecture, I will consciously slow down. Of course, this is ridiculous when you're trying to be charming and even flirtatious (not that I'm good at that) on a date. So after a few botched first-and-last dates, I got the hang of non-academic didactic talking and non-talking about the blogs we both read conversation enough to somehow charm TD. And since then he's been my favorite conversational partner, and so this muffly silence is kind of like a preview of what it would be if we did ever move away from each other, even for a little while, which reminds me not only of that isolating year living with my parents, but also The Month of Emo, in which I barely ate, scarcely left my apartment except to go on hours long walks, and watched Buffy for 10 hours a day.

This isn't an advice seeking post (Comments will be moderated for not at all needed snarkiness, and if you are addressing me or commenting on my story, I'd prefer email. If you would like to share your own story or feelings, comment away.). I've done long-distance, and of course it can work. Of course your example of long distance not working or working is great anecdotal evidence of either. Of course I am socially adept enough to make new friends and of course I should just put more effort into my social life and diversify my stocks of friends and conversational partners. I am just complaining a little, is all. Indulge me my lapses into emo. This is just a bit of oversharing and introspection, kind of like the posts I used to write before law professors started reading me. And to those law professors: don't read if you don't want the emo and oversharing! And yes, I am definitely interested in your VAP or fellowship, in whichever state, however far away! There's always frequent flier miles. Part of the trouble of writing for a dual audience (some of you like the personal stuff; some of you come here for the decreasing amounts of law/academia related blogging) is never being able to please everyone. On the one hand, given my open secret status in the legal blogosphere, I could become more circumspect (as I have been for the past couple of years) and talk about nothing personal, and not be honest about my feelings of ambivalence and my struggles with things that come with the territory of being an academic. On the other, I could write what I just did, be honest about my limits and fears, and seriously consider deleting this post at the end of the week when I am less emo.

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Monday, June 01, 2009

Things I learned at the LSA

I'm back! I had a productive and overall good experience. I presented and got some good feedback, I attended panels and learned interesting things about new research projects and developments, I schmoozed a bit, talked to really nice people who are interested in my future, and explored a bit of the city. I maintain that Orly Lobel still has the best advice for how to have a successful LSA experience, but here are a few of my own tips for struggling, poor graduate students, and lessons learned the hard way.

Cheapness tips:

1. Don't stay at the conference hotel if you can't afford it.

With another friend, I split the cost of a cheap motel (the Ramada Inn) a good mile away in the grungier parts of Denver's downtown, at a rate that was at least $50-75 less per night than the conference hotel. True, it was a bit of a 20 minute walk, but the motel had free wireless, and a free shuttle service that dropped us off and picked us up wherever we wanted in downtown. The reviews were pretty bad, but I like the idea of gonzo academia (which this wasn't!) and I thought of the pervasive smell of smoke and '70s decor as part of the hotel's character. I actually liked the grungy neighborhood, which reminded me much of Liberal College City, except with restaurants actually open late with lots of young, happy and hip people inside of them drinking and cavorting. Denver is a cool city! Seriously, take TripAdvisor's reviews with a grain of salt. If you are not The Princess and the Pea, you will be fine. I am all bourgie and up in that with my 350 thread count sheets I got on sale and my Le Creuset dutch oven that I got for Hanukkah and love of brand named snack foods (generic Doritos != the same!), but I did just fine. I loved the neighborhood full of brick houses and dive bars and coffee shops, and the only "characters" I ran into were two nuns who tried to convert me.

2. GoogleMap your location to find grocery stores and reduce the amount you have to eat out.

I wanted to pack food, but I also wanted to not check in luggage. I compromised by hitting a grocery store (Whole Foods! Very bourgie!) 0.5 miles away when I arrived, picking up lots of non-perishable fruit, muffins (if our motel room had had a fridge, I would have bought cereal and milk and lunch meats and bread for lunch), nuts, and graham crackers. I spent maybe $25 for the two of us, and we had a healthy breakfast every day, and fruit snacks throughout the day. Conference people stopped me to ask where I got my apple, so starved were they for non-cookie nourishment. Even though I dislike shopping at expensive grocery stores for basic items, by buying Gala apples on sale for $1.99/lb (not my usual ethnic grocery store price of $0.79, but certainly better than the $2.99 they were asking for Fujis, my favorite apple) and bananas and $4.39 for four flax/apple muffins, I didn't spend too much for four breakfasts and four days of snacks for two people, and it was much cheaper than buying marked up muffins and coffee at a Starbucks. Because I don't eat much, I actually was able to avoid paying for anything more than dinner, so long as I supplemented all of this with a big glass of milk in the form of a latte. So I basically only spent $20 a day on food, max, what with a $3.50 latte, the aforementioned muffin and fruit, nuts and crackers, and a not expensive dinner.


3. Eat as much free food as possible.

We filled up at the receptions and drank the free coffee and took home the cocoa packets they had on the table. That also helped us work the room, saying hi to recognizable academics in our field, old professors, and new contacts, as we migrated from the sliders table to the salad bar to the pasta bar to the meat bar. Follow your stomach, and you too might make friends and influence future hiring chairs.


4. Get a law professor to take you out to dinner.

I am actually really loathe to let anyone pay for my dinner because I just feel awful about it, but real professors do get comped and so maybe I am not a terrible person. And I didn't order anything bigger than a $3 mac and cheese side (I had filled up too much on free food and my cheap muffins and apples), so I guess I shouldn't feel too bad, especially if the law prof in question is a friend and the nicest person in academia. And it lets you get to spend more time with academics and make friends and talk about your research, before you move onto more important things like talking about which HBO series is best.

5. Don't drink.

I am always glad that in academia, no one ever questions why you are not drinking and there's no peer pressure to drink and keep up. I just don't like drinking enough to begin with, and it's needlessly expensive. And since we were at high altitude, everything just affected me more--dehydration, caffeine, alcohol. I had maybe two drinks out of politeness and sociability, and I didn't finish either of them. Good thing they were cheap drinks.


Lessons learned the hard way:

1. Submit your drafts early, and consider workshopping the same paper at a smaller colloquium.

Most people don't submit until the last minute (ahem), so the feedback is of limited quality and utility, but I guess the point of the LSA is to meet and greet in the halls and receptions, and everyone generally acknowledges that the panels suck. There are too many of them, and so panelists often outnumber audience, and even if there is an audience, there is at most 10 minutes after the discussant/chair goes through the papers for there to be any commentary from your fellow panelists or the audience. I asked a couple of decent questions, but in general the panels I attended had limited participation, which is a bit frustrating compared to my very good experiences at smaller colloquia.

2. Belle is much more popular than The Real Life Alter Ego.

I should always introduce myself as Belle Lettre. I am much more popular than my RLAE. I introduced myself as _______ at the Prawfs/Co-Op happy hour, and got a polite nod and a few questions about myself. I re-introduced myself as Belle Lettre, and immediately got enthusiastic "I love your blogging!" and "when are you going on the market?" and "you should consider this fellowship!" responses, and much sustained chit chatting about law, life, and everything. Because I was not drinking, I was sharp and personable and perky and if I may say, charming. Some people need alcohol to be more charming. While I certainly laugh more and so you become more charming if I drink, I myself am slower and slurry speeched after drinking. I suggest staying sober, talking about the panels and about your own research, and asking the people there about any advice they might give you.

3. Be prepared for altitude sickness.

I didn't get it, but in general, you should remember to drink lots of water when you're a mile above sea level. I was constantly thirsty though, so I very fortunately did bring lots of water. They had free water, of course, but I made it even easier by saving my free water bottle and re-filling it so that I could bring water from panel to panel.

4. You could get a ruptured ear drum or ear infection.

My left ear has been feeling blocked, and my hearing has felt muffled and decreased, since last Wednesday. It may have to do with the change in pressure and elevation I've been experiencing because of flying and being in Mile High City. It hasn't improved, and TD says I could go deaf and whatever. So I am going to call the health center tomorrow. Sigh.

5. Get out and see the city.

It is so exhausting going to all the panels and running around with only 15 minutes in between each session. I took off a couple of the afternoon sessions to walk around and get a feel for the city. We took the entire Saturday afternoon off to go to the Denver Aquarium. We actually had fun at the LSA and were much more relaxed than we usually are at conferences. I strongly suggest doing this. I also suggest meeting up with a cool local blogger for dinner, which is such a welcome relief from the exhausting schmoozefest of the receptions. Blogging has certainly made my conference going more enjoyable, because I never lack for a dinner companion and local guide!


So that's it from me. I will say that it's good to be back, even though I had just one day with TD before he went off to a conference of his own. Conferences in general are a huge time and energy and money suck, and it's a lot of time away from family, but all things considered, this was one of my more enjoyable conference experiences. I wasn't stressed all the time, I had fun, I made friends and contacts, and I got to see the city. I wasn't nearly puking from nervousness or overwhelmed with loneliness in a motel room at 2 am like I was at my first conference. Part of that is experience, of course, but it's also because through blogging I've come to "know" more people, whether at the conference or just in the city, and that's made it a lot better. I've also learned how to be more "normal" when traveling, e.g. by buying groceries and eating healthier. I've forced myself to be more social and set up dinner dates and go to receptions. I've made it a point to try to keep walking or stay active during these jaunts too, which makes me feel better and hopefully counteracted some of the mac and cheese and buffalo meatloaf I ate. All in all, a good conference experience, which is as much as you can ask for!

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